What would Virginia Woolf have made of the immense biographical fuss that has been made, from the time of Michael Holroyd’s Lytton Strachey onward, over the Bloomsbury group and herself in particular? Of the sexual speculations and revelations, the doctoral dissertations, the pro- and anti-Bloomsbury arguments, the iconization of herself as feminist queen, the tourists at Charleston farmhouse, the T-shirts, the innumerable student bedrooms with that wistful early photograph tacked to the wall? As exponent of the evanescence of personality, the elusiveness of a narrative line in any life, she herself has of course said the best things about biography. “Do you think it is possible to write a life of anyone?” she wrote to her young niece when she was contemplating her life of Roger Fry. “I doubt it; because people are all over the place.” So Roger Fry was not a great success, though in the semi-biography Orlando she did allow herself to go all over the place—mixing up centuries, sexes, and magical transformations. In her fiction, the difficulty of pinning down a life keeps on recurring: the pursuit of a vanishing Jacob in Jacob’s Room, for instance, the splitting of herself into six autobiographical voices in The Waves—a book that mocks the “biographic style” which just “tacks together bits of stuff, stuff with raw edges.”

Woolf summed it all up in a review of a biography:

Here is the past and all its inhabitants miraculously sealed as in a magic tank; all we have to do is to look and to listen and to listen and to look and soon the little figures—for they are rather under life size—will begin to move and to speak, and as they move we shall arrange them in all sorts of patterns of which they were ignorant, for they thought when they were alive that they could go where they liked; and as they speak we shall read into their sayings all kinds of meanings which never struck them, for they believed when they were alive that they said straight off whatever came into their heads. But once you are in a biography all is different.

How brave then of Professor Lee to have undertaken this outstanding biography, slyly undermined as it was by her subject before she even began. She confesses to fear of Woolf—fear of not being intelligent enough for her—as well as fear for her, as Woolf’s feelings and experiences are tracked. And Lee has had attacks, she says, of “archive-faintness” in face of the mass of correspondence, diaries, articles, and books that could almost make it possible to know what Virginia Woolf did on every day of her life. Fortunately, of course, no amount of data actually could do that, for any life. There remain secrets and surmises, important ones, that actually add depth and vitality to the story. Lee’s book is not at all a tale of little doll-figures pushed into patterns by the biographer, as Woolf describes it in her review; it is an account through which one individual life is re-imagined and honored without bias or condescension. The writings themselves, at every turn, are linked to the life and illuminated by it.

Professor Lee puts paid to a number of derogatory myths about Woolf’s life: that she was snobbish, shrinking, overprivileged, blind to anything outside her own exclusive clique. She shows Woolf’s exhausting commitment to her work, her frugal way of life, her self-doubt, and her attitudes—tentative but honest—toward social and political issues. She shows her not as a delicate lady presiding over teacups but as a leader in a generation precariously inventing ways of living and writing for the twentieth century. She relates everything to the powerful family bonds that formed Woolf, and at the same time disentangles the roles that family members set up for one another from the deeper and more real feelings that underlie them.

The slaughter of lives and hopes that took place in the first twenty-odd years of Virginia Stephen’s life, profoundly determining her preoccupation with transience and mortality, is well known. Both father and mother had been previously widowed, and still, it seemed to outsiders, had an air of grieving; they brought, respectively, one and three orphaned children of their own to the marriage. The daughter from Leslie Stephen’s first marriage was retarded, or autistic, and eventually “put away.” The half-brothers to Virginia and Vanessa sexually abused them in girlhood. When Julia Stephen—the “angel of the house” from whom Virginia inherited her exquisite bone structure—died suddenly in the way that Victorian women did, there were eight children left; Virginia at the time was thirteen. Only two years later, and soon after marrying, her half-sister Stella Duckworth died through some medical mismanagement. In his twenties her brother Thoby Stephen died of typhoid. In the family background were eccentrics and manic-depressives. And Leslie Stephen, father and stepfather to the brood, died lingeringly when Virginia was twenty-two. It was from these beginnings that Woolf as adult writer interpreted life as fragile, immensely precious, and always under threat.


It is all the more important to have it made clear by Lee how relentlessly hard Virginia Woolf worked. Considering the number of times when she was quite disabled by migraine, as well as the several serious breakdowns, the routine Woolf kept and the amount of work she got through is noble. The equally workaholic Leonard (whose standard she was no doubt zealous to match) was recording soon after their marriage that they each wrote 750 words in the morning, dug the garden all afternoon, and wrote another 500 each evening. (And the letters, the diaries, the work, later on, for the Hogarth Press….) Lee reminds us that, besides the novels, for a long period Woolf was writing up to forty articles and reviews a year. The novels themselves were revised, retyped, revised again and then again. At the end of the four-year struggle that produced The Years, Woolf, unusually, paid herself a compliment in the diary: “I hand my compliment to that terribly depressed woman, myself, whose head ached so often: who was so entirely convinced a failure; for in spite of everything I think she brought it off, & is to be congratulated.” She did bring it off. And from all the work there was little real money coming in until she was well into middle age; the great excitement of the installation of a bath with hot water system at Monk’s House came when she was forty-five. Woolf was a privileged woman, certainly, but it was the privilege of background, not of money, education (this was reserved for her brothers), family happiness, or easy success.

Nor did either she or Leonard Woolf have the privilege of an easy marriage. Academic boots have tramped to and fro over this relationship, but Lee treads with the greatest delicacy. The unfortunate Leonard has been praised as saint and reviled as jailer, which would no doubt have pleased his grim sense of humor. Lee does not gloss him over: he was a bleak man and a pessimist, with a poor opinion of the human race. Virginia, no doubt, supplied for him the sense of fun and fantasy that he could not find in himself. For her, the marital bargain awarded her his total honesty and commitment—qualities rare enough in the flibbertigibbet homosexual men of the Bloomsbury group. (Katherine Mansfield, attached to the flimsy Middleton Murry, bitterly envied Virginia her marriage.) Woolf told Ethel Smyth much later that she had married and immediately crashed into breakdown, and the impression has hung around that her marriage and its sexual failure drove her instantly mad. Chronology shows, however, that the breakdown came over a year afterward, and was closely connected with finishing The Voyage Out, her first novel. Lee quotes the touching letter she sent to Leonard before the marriage:

I feel I must give you everything; and that if I can’t, well, marriage would only be second-best for you as well as for me. If you can still go on, as before, letting me find my own way, as that is what would please me best; and then we must both take the risks. But you have made me very happy too. We both of us want a marriage that is a tremendous living thing, always alive, always hot, not dead and easy in parts as most marriages are. We ask a great deal of life, don’t we? Perhaps we shall get it; then, how splendid!

Perhaps, Lee says wisely, they did. If so, it was not without sacrifice on both sides.

Woolf has been accused of being—not merely snobbish—but generally indifferent to social and political questions. Once again, Lee’s scrupulous examination modifies this view substantially. Woolf did in fact have some rather reluctant involvement with causes such as the Women’s Co-operative Guild; but she was, certainly, doubtful about taking on the role of do-gooder. There had been committed do-gooders in the family—her self-effacing mother, her half-sister Stella—but she was ambivalent about charity. Unlike the well-meaning women of her class, she was all too aware of the huge gap between patronized and patronizer. And as her writing career took off, the active, political role was automatically assumed by Leonard; for herself, “Thinking is my fighting.” (He, typically, summed up his lifetime of public work as having been totally futile.) But when women of her status found it easy to deny how poorer women lived (“They don’t really feel it,” I was told as a child), she knew very well, for instance, the conditions of the cottagers in Rodmell village. After a Labour meeting that set her once again pondering “Ought we all to be engaged in altering the structure of society?” she moved on in her diary to note that their servant Louie had said she had enjoyed working for them, was sorry they were going to London—and yes, “That’s a piece of work too in its way.” About her own advantaged position she was perfectly honest: “Presumably the miners will have to give in,” she wrote in the diary when they were striking in 1921, “& I shall get my hot bath, & bake home made bread again; & yet it seems a pity somehow—if they’re to be forced back & the mine owners triumphant. I think this is my genuine feeling, though not very profound.”


And the snobbery? Lee is hard on Woolf for her disdain, in off-the-cuff writings, for the dowdy, the boring, the conventional, the plain, the stupid—for anyone, in fact, who was currently grating on her nerves. But then Lee was not alive to listen to the snobbery of grown-ups during a 1930s English childhood—it was massive, all-encompassing. Bloomsburyite snobbery, in comparison, seems only a minor and relatively honest offshoot of it.1

Far from clinging to isolationist snobbery, from her own perspective Woolf—and some others at least of the group—were struggling to express the immense upheavals of their time. As Lee says, “What she does with her life, how and what she writes, has to be read as a feature of the dramatic shifts in English cultural history between the 1880s and the 1930s.” It had begun already with the choice, in 1905, of the orphaned family to set up house on their own together: the time when “we were full of experiments and reforms. We were going to do without table napkins…to have coffee after dinner instead of tea at nine o’clock”—and other such shocking things. In the first three, more or less traditional, novels, ideas about breaking down old structures are explicit, discussed; by the time Woolf reached To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Dalloway, and The Waves and had abandoned the conventional novel form, she had evolved her own method of examining the flow of time and the fluctuation of character, which drew on rhythm and pattern rather than on event following event. She was by then modernist rather than modern. (When she did try to go back to solid narrative in The Years, she ran into huge difficulties with it.)

What she was aiming at, by this time, was to pattern the ebb and flow of feeling, the moments of being and the moments of not-being, the perpetual balancing of inner world and outer world. As she herself put it in one of her essays,

The balance between the outer and the inner is, after all, a terribly precarious business. They depend upon each other with the utmost closeness. If dreams become too widely divorced from truth they develop into an insanity which in literature is generally an evasion on the part of the artist.

She had a special apprenticeship in maintaining this fine balance; having had to lose it, and then to learn to master it, had given her sanity a steely quality.

Already in Night and Day she was concerning herself with this shifting between “dream” and “truth”: Katharine Hilbery, surrounded by family, turns to look out of the window through darkness to the river:

With her eyes upon the dark sky, voices reached her from the room in which she was standing. She heard them as if they came from people in another world, a world antecedent to her world, a world that was the prelude, the antechamber to reality; it was as if, lately dead, she heard the living talking. The dream nature of our life had never been more apparent to her, never had life been more certainly an affair of four walls, whose objects existed only within the range of lights and fires, beyond which lay nothing, or nothing more than darkness.

But—she draws the curtains, turns back to the room and the voices; her father sends her off to fetch Trelawny’s Recollections of Shelley from his study; it is on the third shelf to the right of the door. Words, numbers, places, recollections reassert their existence.

That moment of non-being experienced by Katharine is described in another way in a marvelous passage in Woolf’s diary:

When I come indoors, it is all so silent—I am not carrying a great rush of wheels in my head—Yet I am writing—oh & we are very successful—& there is—what I most love—change ahead…And it is autumn; & the lights are going up; & Nessa is in Fitzroy Street—in a great misty room, with flaring gas & unsorted plates & glasses on the floor,—& the Press is booming—& this celebrity business is quite chronic—& I am richer than I have ever been—& bought a pair of earrings today—& for all this, there is vacancy & silence somewhere in the machine.

And then, in another part of the diary, there is its opposite, the moment of being:

I remember lying on the side of a hollow, waiting for L to come & mushroom, & seeing a red hare loping up the side & thinking suddenly, “This is Earth life.” I seemed to see how earthly it all was, & I myself an evolved kind of hare; as if a moon-visitor saw me.

All of The Waves is this ebb and flow between vanishing and reappearing. When Bernard, “an elderly man, a heavy man with grey hair,” leans over a country gate, all he sees is the “colourless field, the empty field.” But how then,

How then does light return to the world after the eclipse of the sun? Miraculously. Frailly. In thin strips. It hangs like a glass cage. It is a hoop to be fractured by a tiny jar. There is a spark there. Next moment a flush of dun. Then a vapour as if earth were breathing in and out, once, twice, for the first time. Then off twists a white wraith. The woods throb blue and green, and gradually the fields drink in red, gold, brown. Suddenly a river snatches a blue light. The earth absorbs colour like a sponge slowly drinking water. It puts on weight; rounds itself; hangs pendent; settles and swings beneath our feet.

So the landscape returned to me.

These are the moments when “the walls of the mind grow thin,” one of those “sudden transparencies though which one sees everything.” Structure becomes visible, the chaotic is given form. This was what the writing was for.

Woolf said that her madness had saved her (saved her from the fastidiousness and coldness of the Stephens). What could she really have meant by that? Lee manages the whole question of Woolf’s “madness” with the greatest sensitivity, steering a way between the words “illness” and “gift,” neither of which is quite accurate. The mental sufferings were real, and dreadful; but if Woolf felt it was, in one way, a saving madness, it must have been because it did allow the walls of the mind to grow thin, and everything to be seen. The point was to embody that seeing in words, which tested Woolf to the limit. Lee reminds us that in Mrs. Dalloway all that Septimus could tell about his madness was a kind of scribble—“messages from the dead; do not cut down trees; tell the Prime Minister,” and such like—proving nothing but the solipsism of mental illness; and she suggests that Woolf’s terror of the reviewers may partly have been that she would be taken for a Septimus, rather than a writer brilliantly exploring dangerous territory.

In her diary Woolf suggests something of what she could gain from the “whirr of wings in the head”: “Something happens in my mind. It refuses to go on registering impressions. It shuts itself up. It becomes chrysalis….Then suddenly something springs…ideas rush in me; often though this is before I can control my mind or pen.” And in a letter to Ethel Smyth she wrote that while she was ill, “suffering from every form and variety of nightmare and extravagant intensity of perception,” she would “make up poems, stories, profound and to me inspired phrases all day long as I lay in bed, and thus sketched, I think, all that I now, by the light of reason, try to put into prose.”

If there had been a tape recorder available then, would the inspired-seeming phrases have turned out to be something like Septimus’s, or not? Did the real making of them start then or afterward? The diaries can sometimes give us a unique glimpse of a progress from shape to image to phrase, and to the beginning of a book. In 1925, for instance, she wrote there after a crowded meeting that “I sometimes think humanity is a vast wave, undulating…persisting and wide spread—in jungles, storms, birth and deaths….” Here is a prefiguration of The Waves; and later, writing about her friends, she has, “If 6 people died, it is true that my life would cease.” A year after this she is noting a stirring of something, like a fin seen out at sea: “No biographer could possibly guess this important fact about my life in the late summer of 1926: yet biographers pretend they know people.” In 1927, after one of her illnesses, she records that she suddenly

told over the story of the Moths…The play-poem idea; the idea of some continuous stream, not solely of human thought, but of the ship, the night &c, all flowing together…. I do a little work on it in the evening when the gramophone is playing late Beethoven sonatas.

From the idea of the six friends there is a sidetracking into Orlando; then in early 1929, some time after a vivid dream of the dead Katherine Mansfield, she is writing,

Now is life very solid, or very shifting? I am haunted by the two contradictions. This has gone on for ever: will last for ever; goes down to the bottom of the world—this moment I stand on. Also it is transitory, flying, diaphanous. I shall pass like a cloud on the waves. Perhaps it may be that though we change; one flying after another, so quick so quick, yet we are somehow successive, & continuous—we human beings; & show the light through.

Two months after this, she has started The Waves. We have been able to trace a progression over four years.

Behind the disintegrations, and the vision that they facilitated, was the experience of death and loss that filled Woolf’s early life. Lee says that from the time of the last of the family deaths—that of Thoby Stephen—it was determined that nearly all Woolf’s novels would be elegiac. It is the suddenness and the absolute intransigence of death that hover behind her sense that living is a precarious progress along a knife-edge, with “fallings away, vanishings” on either side of it. To have Rachel Vinrace in The Voyage Out die, pointlessly and young, at the end of a book describing her past, her hopes and fears, her possible futures, is shocking and somehow angering. Why bother with twenty-four chapters about Rachel and then, in three final chapters, wipe her out? Because that is what can happen. And no consolation is supplied: Rachel is lost to Terence even before she dies, as he tries to talk affectionately to her and she stares at the wall and talks about an old woman with a knife.2 In To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Ramsay’s death is equally sudden, meaningless, obstinate: “Mr. Ramsay stumbling along a passage stretched his arms out one dark morning, but, Mrs. Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before he stretched his arms out, they remained empty.” And The Waves is all an elegy for the dead Thoby, in the character of Percival. The actual pain of loss, Woolf says here, is surrounded by rituals, gestures, pretenses, but in itself is inexpressible:

But for pain words are lacking. There should be cries, cracks, fissures, whiteness passing over chintz covers, interference with the sense of time, of space; the sense also of extreme fixity in passing objects; and sounds very remote and then very close; flesh being gashed and blood spurting, a joint suddenly twisted—beneath all of which appears something very important, yet remote, to be just held in solitude.

Having been led by Lee so superbly through these ventures into dissolution of Woolf’s, from which she had always emerged intact, it is all the more terrible to have to follow the story through to its end, when “vacancy and silence in the machine” did win. On March 28, 1941, Woolf left suicide notes saying that she felt herself going mad again, and drowned herself in the river, with stones in her pockets. Her body was not found for a few weeks, mistaken at first for a floating bit of debris.

Her work had always been full of images of water; as early as 1912, when she was fearfully facing the decisions to marry and to publish her first book, she had written to a friend: “You’ll tell me I’m a failure as a writer, as well as a failure as a woman. Then I shall take a dive into the Serpentine, which, I see, is 6 feet deep in malodorous mud.” At one point during the final weeks of despair and defeat, she tripped over into a hole in the flooded fields and emerged, as she felt, “eliminated of human feature.” A little while later she scribbled:

The woman who lives in this room has the look of someone without any consecutive [?] part. She has no settled relations with her kind. She is like a piece of seaweed that floats this way, then that way. For the fish who float into this cave are always passing through…She inhabits a fluctuating water world…constantly tossed up and down like a piece of sea weed. She has no continuity. The rush of water is always floating her up and down.

The more obvious reasons for her falling into this terminal state are not hard to see: wartime conditions marooned her in the country away from her friends; their house in London, with all its contents and associations, was destroyed by bombs; enemy planes were constantly flying over Sussex. Leonard was preoccupied; both knew what German invasion would mean for Jews.3 It was in the previous world war, also, that she had had her worst collapse. But her feelings about her writing, as always, were deeply involved as well. In the prevailing conditions, publication of Roger Fry had aroused little notice. Correcting Between the Acts brought on the state of despair that she always had at the end of a book—it was unpublishable, she declared, “a completely worthless book,” “silly & trivial.”

What destroyed her was the isolation caused by the war, the lack of any audience to produce her writing for. In The Waves (through Bernard) she says: “I am a natural coiner of words, a blower of bubbles through one thing and another.” But—“I need an audience. That is my downfall…. I need the illumination of other people’s eyes, and therefore cannot be entirely sure what is my self.” Now there was only nothingness around her—“no audience, no echo,” “no printer to consider, no public,” and again, “no echo in Rodmell—only waste air.” In June of the year before she had written, “I can’t conceive that there will be a 27th of June 1941.” She was right; for her there was none.

This Issue

May 29, 1997